NORFOLK — Courtney Maum sat at a table outside her home and property in the village of Norfolk. It was a brilliant late summer afternoon and the sun bounced off her abode. That, along with a mug full of coffee, refreshed her. Nearby, her young daughter played the games young children play in the morning when they are still in their pajamas. Maum’s husband, Diego Ongaro, a filmmaker/writer/editor, attended to a delivery of fire wood as he prepared for the cold winters that Norfolk can throw at its residents.
Maum was dressed casually, as befitted the youth of the day. But her mind is anything but casual, working constantly on new plot lines, characters, sentence structure, and twists and turns that have won her acclaim as a blossoming author.
Maum is the author of the novels “Costalegre,” “Touch,” “I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,” and the handbook “Before and After the Book Deal: A writer’s guide to finishing, publishing, promoting, and surviving your first book,” forthcoming from Catapult. Her writing has also been widely published in BuzzFeed; the New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine, and Poets & Writers. She is the founder of the learning collaborative, The Cabins, which will take place again in the summer of 2020, and runs a service called “The Query Doula,” where she helps writers prepare their manuscripts and query letters for an agent’s eyes.
This, shall we say, renaissance woman also “trend forecasted” in Paris, France at the heralded “Nelly Rodi” and “Alchimie” agencies before she struck out on her own. She has collaborated with fashion, fragrance and cosmetic clients, such as Thom Browne, Victoria’s Secret, L’Oréal, Dior, Proctor and Gamble, Lancôme, Sephora, Shu Uemura, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, MAC Cosmetics, and others. Although she specializes in beauty, she also is versed in the pharmaceutical, insurance, banking, tech, and automotive industries, where her clients include Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Aflac, Target, American Express and Bloomberg.
For the past 10 years, Maum has consulted regularly for top “naming” agencies across the country, including Interbrand, Landor, CBX, Bloomberg, Futurebrand and Lippincott. A native English speaker, she believes a fluency in French and beginner-level Italian and Spanish have made her adept at naming products and companies that will be released worldwide. Add mom, wife, horsewoman and polo player in there, and we have one very busy woman. Whew.
Where were we? Oh yes, sitting outside with Maum as she prepared for the day. “I love it here, it is perfect,” she smiled, when asked if her home and property are good places to write. She has a “woman cave” (office) on the home’s second floor, which has a window overlooking a pond and woods and her husband’s “man cave” (office) at the rear of the secluded property. With all her tasks, when does Maum have time to write? “I write from 8:30 a.m. to lunch on Mondays and Tuesdays,” she says, adding, “and I spend a lot of time writing blurbs, off pieces about the books and working social media, which my publishers want me to do. It’s part of the game now. They want you actively involved and be your own PR agent.”
According to her website, Maum’s first book, “I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You,” is a work of fiction about a British artist named Richard Haddon, “who is too busy mourning the loss of his American mistress to a famous cutlery designer to appreciate his fortune.” Haddon “embarks on a series of misguided attempts to win his wife back, while focusing his creative energy on a provocative art piece to prove that he’s still the man she once loved.”
“Notes From Mexico,” the winner of The Cupboard’s 2012 annual chapbook contest, has been called “part travelogue and part eulogy.” Author Maud Casey described the work as “a book in 21 chapters” that is “wickedly funny but never rests on its cleverness. It tackles the winning oddness of the world, as well as a lovely, fresh agility when it comes to wrangling with behemoths like marriage and having, or not having, children.”
“Costalegre,” released this year was heavily inspired by the real-life relationship between the heiress Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen. It is an imaginative and” curiously touching story” of a privileged teenager who has “everything a girl could wish for except for a mother who loves her back.”
Maum knew early on in life that writing would become her lifeblood.
“I wrote little stories at the age of seven or eight and I would make book jackets out of wallpaper. The stories were mostly about unicorns,” she says with a laugh. “When I was 13 I wrote something that won a contest sponsored by the Connecticut Arts Council and I had to go up on a stage and read the story. It left an indelible memory with me. I began to take my writing more seriously after that.”
Maum edited her high school’s literary magazine called “Daedalus,” which, incidentally, was a post that Radhikha Jones, current Vanity Fair editor, also held while attending the high school.
In her 20s Maum wrote for magazines and newspapers, all the while “reading a lot and making friends”. She segued into branding work and writing at night. Her first book was quickly accepted by the publishing company, and her career as an author was launched, although, as she details in her next book, even fairly instant acceptance is never easy and filled with pitfalls and hurdles to jump over.
That next book, “Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book,” has over 150 contributors from all walks of the industry, including international bestselling authors Anthony Doerr, Roxane Gay, Garth Greenwell, Lisa Ko, R. O. Kwon, Rebecca Makkai, and Ottessa Moshfegh, alongside cult favorites Sarah Gerard, Melissa Febos, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Mira Jacob. Agents, film scouts, film producers, translators, disability and minority activists, and power agents and editors also weigh in, offering advice and sharing intimate anecdotes about even the most taboo topics in the industry..
Maum hopes “Before and After the Book Deal” will help guide writers through the process of getting published and sustaining success. She also believes the casual reader will find an inside look at the writing and publishing business an interesting and informative read.
She spoke candidly about her craft. “What I am most proud of is that my writing is honest. It’s heartfelt and sincere. Writing a book is a long process, perhaps two years or more for me. I believe being able to write well is a gift, but people can learn what their personal voice is. Listen to your voice and be brave.”
When writing a novel, Maum plays it close to the computer. “During the process, I don’t allow any elements to come into my work that might prove a virus to the work. I keep what I am writing very private.” When the manuscript is complete, she gives her husband, as well as her trusted and valued agent, Rebecca Gradinger, a read and welcomes their thoughts.
The public will have a chance to chat with Maum at Oliver Wolcott Library, 160 South Street in Litchfield on Nov. 21, during which time she, along with “Motherland”’s author Elissa Altman, will conduct “a conversation about mothers, motherhood, and writing” in celebration of National Novel Writing Month. The event begins at 7 p.m.